I think this question is a question for all of the ages. When tragedy strikes, we want to know why God did not prevent it from happening. When the unexplainable occurs, we want to know why God did not do something about it. Even more frustrating is some of the answers that we are given by religion and those who think they are giving spiritual answers. Sometimes the answers come from people who have not enduring any great amount of suffering. So, before we look at how to answer the question before us, I want to share with you some of my life so that you will know that I do not speak about this without any life experiences. When I was ten years old my parents got a divorce. The divorce was not cordial or calm, leading to tumult in the house. I lived with my mother on the weekdays and with my father on the weekends. Holidays were not a fun time of the year because it meant that choices between families must be made. My current difficulty is even greater as our youngest daughter was born with Prader-Willi Syndrome, a genetic disorder that causes physical, emotional, and mental delays. Grace has low muscle tone and has unique health circumstances that we must watch and control. Ultimately, Prader-Willi Syndrome reveals itself in the form of an insatiable appetite. At some point, she will begin to want to always eat because she will not feel full. The problem can become so bad that cabinets and refrigerators have to be locked at all times. We go to Shands in Gainesville regularly to help research efforts and to monitor her progress as the syndrome begins to reveal itself with new challenges and problems. So, again, I want you to see that I am not unaffected by the question about suffering and evil. How can something bad like this happen to a sweet little girl who has no control over any of it? When we see the innocent suffer, questions about God are legitimately raised. Before we can look at the answer to our question, we need to deal with some false beliefs.
False Belief #1: God Causes Everything To Happen
This belief immediately comes to light in the face of tragedy and suffering. The person suffering will say, “Why did God take my child from me?” God is charged with blame for the particular tragic event. The belief is that God is control of everything and therefore is the cause of every event that takes place. Here is one way that this teaching is stated: Standing on the “rock foundation” of the Word of God as our axiomatic starting point (Matthew 7:24-25), we have an answer to the problem of evil. God, who is altogether holy and can do no wrong, sovereignly decrees evil things to take place for his own good purposes (Isaiah 45:7). Just because He has decreed it, his action is right. As Jerome Zanchius wrote:
The will of God is so the cause of all things, as to be, itself without cause, for nothing can be the cause of that which is the cause of everything. Hence we find every matter resolved ultimately into the mere sovereign pleasure of God. God has no other motive for what He does than ipsa voluntas, His mere will, which will itself is so far from being unrighteous that it is justice itself.
For me, this is quite a difficulty to teach that God causes all things to happen. The evil things that happen take place for God’s own good purposes. I am not sure how to tell someone that their suffering is for God’s own good purpose. This is the argument that gives room for the atheist to criticize that there is no God. How could God be a loving God and cause suffering for His own purposes? A God who causes suffering for Himself is no God at all. We must reject the commonly taught doctrine in the religious world that God causes everything to happen. A lack of rain is not God waking up and deciding He does not want it to rain. Death is not the product of God deciding that some people should die today. To believe that God causes everything to take place will cause us to be angry at God.
This doctrine also goes against the scriptures. The scriptures never tell us that God causes everything that happens in the world. In fact, the scriptures tell us that there are a number of factors that affect our lives. But there is one person who is repeatedly forgotten. Satan is someone who is actively working in this world.
You were dead through the trespasses and sins in which you once lived, following the course of this world, following the ruler of the power of the air, the spirit that is now at work among those who are disobedient (Ephesians 2:1-2).
Be sober! Be on the alert! Your adversary the Devil is prowling around like a roaring lion, looking for anyone he can devour (1 Peter 5:8).
Put on the full armor of God so that you can stand against the tactics of the Devil. For our battle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the world powers of this darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavens. This is why you must take up the full armor of God, so that you may be able to resist in the evil day, and having prepared everything, to take your stand (Ephesians 6:11-13).
God is not the only thing operating in this universe. The devil is also at work at he is powerful in this world. The devil is going to do things to us. He has “tactics” and “schemes” that we are battling against.
We need to realize that we do not know who to blame when we suffer. Immediately God is the person who everyone wants to blame. But how do you know that God caused the tragedy? Why couldn’t Satan have been the cause? Satan is the author of all kinds of evil. Why does he get excluded from the blame? In fact, if we want to cast blame, why are we not at least blaming Satan first? Satan does not love us. Satan does not care about us. Satan is the enemy who fights against God. Before we think that God did it, let us consider that it is just as likely, and even more likely, that Satan is the cause of our suffering and is the causing of evil. God does not cause everything to happen.
False Belief #2: Everything Happens For A Reason
This belief is tied closely to the first false belief. If we think God causes everything, then we must believe that every good and bad outcome has a reason. I see this repeatedly on television. A person professing godliness loses a contest and declares that God did not want the person to win. The final words out of their mouths are “everything happens for a reason.” God must have His reason for not letting me win or not giving me the victory. But the notion that everything happens for a reason is just as false as the premise that God causes everything. Do we really think that God was involved in ensuring our victory or causing our defeat? He wanted to make sure you did not win Survivor or wanted you to win the Publishers’ Clearinghouse Sweepstakes? I hope you see that the idea that “everything happens for a reason” is firmly built on the premise that God causes everything to happen. This false doctrine then becomes another weapon for the atheist. If everything happens for a reason, how do we explain the tsunami killing thousands? How do we explain fires killing people in southern California or hunger killing children in Africa? What is the reason that God has for these things? We are forced to defend God about things that are indefensible. Thus, the Calvinist throws up his hands and declares that God is sovereign and can do whatever He wants. But this leaves God as a callous, uncaring, and unloving God who would do these things.
The book of Ecclesiastes spends much time discussing how many things in life are senseless and do not have meaning or reason.
Again I saw that under the sun the race is not to the swift, nor the battle to the strong, nor bread to the wise, nor riches to the intelligent, nor favor to those with knowledge, but time and chance happen to them all (Eccl. 9:11).
This should be eye-opening for us. There are things in life that do not make sense. There are things that happen without reason. Time and chance are factors is this world that bring about many causes and effects. Ecclesiastes tells us that there is such a thing as “being in the wrong place at the wrong time” or “being in the right place at the right time.” We commonly call this having good luck or bad luck, but it is really just a matter of chance. I have told you about my friend Darren, a Christian who lost his wife and children on Christmas Eve in a car accident. We could blame God, but what is the evidence that He did this? We could blame Satan because maybe he was going to use this as an opportunity to destroy Darren. But there is another possible factor: time and chance. If his wife leave her parents’ home two minutes earlier or two minutes later, the accident likely never occurs. You have probably seen the same thing where an accident happens just a couple cars ahead of you or behind you. It could have been you. You were almost at the wrong place at the wrong time.
Causes For Suffering
We have already noted two possible reasons for suffering. Satan is a major cause for suffering as he tries to inflict pain and turmoil in our lives to rip us away from God. The book of Job pulls back the heavenly curtain and we are able to see that Satan brings torment to our lives. The second possible cause for suffering is time and chance. Things happen in life. People drive badly while talking on cell phones. Things happen in life and we are affected by where we are at the time of the event.
There is one more factor at work that causes suffering that we need to address. The Proverbs teach us to be mindful because our choices in life will bring about suffering or joy. The passage we are about to read personifies wisdom as speaking:
24 Since I called out and you refused, extended my hand and no one paid attention, 25 since you neglected all my counsel and did not accept my correction, 26 I, in turn, will laugh at your calamity. I will mock when terror strikes you, 27 when terror strikes you like a storm and your calamity comes like a whirlwind, when trouble and stress overcome you. 28 Then they will call me, but I won’t answer; they will search for me, but won’t find me. 29 Because they hated knowledge, didn’t choose to fear the LORD, 30 were not interested in my counsel, and rejected all my correction, 31 they will eat the fruit of their way and be glutted with their own schemes. 32 For the waywardness of the inexperienced will kill them, and the complacency of fools will destroy them. 33 But whoever listens to me will live securely and be free from the fear of danger” (Proverbs 1:24-33).
To summarize what Solomon taught, he simply said that if we commit evil acts, we should expect to reap the consequences. If we do what is good, we should expect to receive the rewards. Paul said it like this:
Do not be deceived: God is not mocked, for whatever one sows, that will he also reap (Galatians 6:7).
The concept is pretty simple. Bad things happen when we do bad things. Good things happen when we do good things. The world is greatly interconnected. My good acts not only are good for me but are good for other people. In the same way, evil acts not only hurt me but also negatively affect others. Drinking and driving will not only cost me by being arrested and being put in prison, I may lose my life. Worse, I may take another person’s life in an accident. We are hurt by other people’s evil actions.
Before we could go further, these are important concepts that we have to understand. God does not cause everything to happen. There are other factors at work. Satan is working against us, taking opportunities to harm us. Time and chance are also working in this world. Therefore, we cannot say that everything has a reason. Sometimes there are things that just happen. Having a flat tire is not God trying to tell you to go to church or to stop coming to church. Flat tires happen. Time and chance happen to all. Finally, we suffer because we make bad life decisions. Probably a great percentage of our suffering would cease if we stop making evil decisions and everyone else also stopped committing evil. There is much to be said for thinking about what the world would be like if everyone loved rather than hated and if everyone obeyed the Lord instead of doing whatever they want.
But the answers we have given do not answer everything. We are off to a good start, but there is more to contemplate. God may not cause suffering and evil to take place, but as the all-powerful God, He allows it to happen. God has the power to intervene and prevent suffering. Why doesn’t he prevent suffering? Why does He allow Satan to harm us? Why does God allow us to be affected by our evil actions? We will answer these questions in our next lesson.